Research conducted by a local historical organization has put names to 25 soldiers out of the hundreds believed to have been buried in unmarked graves at a military cemetery in the Hudson Valley during the American Revolution.
"Having names of folks makes it more real to people when they're thinking about getting involved and supporting us," said Lance Ashworth, president of the Friends of the Fishkill Supply Depot, which is working to preserve the cemetery site.
The deaths occurred between 1776 and 1783, when the Fishkill Supply Depot was a bustling military outpost and the main supply source for the northern portion of Gen. George Washington's Continental Army. In Dutchess County just a few miles inland from the Hudson River's east bank, 60 miles north of New York City, the depot was a sprawling complex of barracks, stables, blacksmith shops, hospitals, armories and stockades.
Thousands of soldiers passed through Fishkill during the war. Many, perhaps more than 1,000, are believed to have died there. An accurate number is unknown. Some died from battle wounds suffered elsewhere, but most of the soldiers buried at Fishkill died from illness or disease.
Over the past two-plus centuries, farms, homes and businesses have encroached on the old depot site. By the late 20th century, suburban sprawl had whittled the cemetery site down to a tiny patch of woods bounded by a highway, a shopping mall, gas station and private property.
A few years ago, local officials and preservationists began an effort to protect the last remaining untouched, privately owned parcel believed to hold the graves of hundreds of soldiers. In 2008, archaeologists used radar to confirm that the southern tip of the property alone contained the graves of more than 300 soldiers.
In the fall of 2010, members of Ashworth's nonprofit group began a project to identify some of the soldiers. Those listed in historical records as having "died at Fishkill" were probably buried there; the practice of embalming a soldier's body for shipment back home wasn't developed until nearly a century later.
The group pored over old muster roles, military correspondence, private letters, physicians' journals and other documents to find any mention of Fishkill and soldier deaths. So far they've been able to identify 25 listed in the records as having died at Fishkill. They include 12 privates, five lieutenants, three captains, a surgeon and a nurse and three others whose ranks are not listed. The regiments they served in were mustered in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maryland.
The cause of death is known for just a handful of them. Three died of smallpox, two from drowning in Fishkill Creek and one from dysentery.
The Fishkill group has been in contact with several descendants of some of the 25 soldiers identified. They include Lee Carlson of Gardiner, across the Hudson from Fishkill.
Carlson's family tree includes Archelaus Towne, a 45-year-old captain from New Hampshire who fought at Bunker Hill and Saratoga before dying of dysentery and fever at Fishkill on Dec. 1, 1779. Carlson said he had no inkling when he moved to the Hudson Valley years ago that Towne was buried nearby. He has since visited the Fishkill site several times while researching his ancestor's life story.
"In a way, it's an eerie feeling," said Carlson, a retired university administrator. "It's fascinating to find their story. You wonder what these people were like."